Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe”

“Queen of Katwe” narrates the journey of a 14-year old young girl named Phiona Mutesi, from the slums of Uganda to become Women Candidate Master at World Chess Olympiads.

Mira Nair, was one among the few filmmakers, stamped their presence on World Cinema with content that often received with contempt and disagreement. This time she chooses a biographical journey of a young girl filled with dreams, chasing the impossible.

The movie starts with Phiona (Madina Nalwanga)  nervously asking her coach if she is ready for probably the most important event of her life. The coach, Robert Katande (David Oyelowo), was the first to spot the talent in a young girl who used to sell maize on the streets of Katawe slum in Uganda.

The coach had his own share of disappointments in the life. But, anything that does is not a revenge and never an anguish at the system.  It is more of Rocky Balboa speaking for him demanding everyone to pull up their socks before putting their queens down. He despite being good at academics had to stay at his home place discriminated by his cultural background. He had to quit football due to health constraints and so decides to coach a group of young kids from the slum the sport with no potential possibility of physical injuries.

He is not making a statement to the system, neither is he trying to recreate his dreams from other channels. Call it luck, call it destiny, he now has a talent in his hand and he is never going to let it be in the place that it doesn’t deserve to be in.

Phiona’s family from times unknown struggled to survive the odds of poverty. With the husband gone and the child lost, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), the mother, had very little choice but keep fighting. She is only fighting for survival and to give her four children everything she can but with respect. She had to deal with four children – Phiona, Night (Taryn Kyaze), Ivan (Ronald Ssemeganda) and the youngest still a toddler. Night chooses to go away with a guy named Theo, who is only one to ride a motorcycle in the slum, the life that she never wanted her children to see.

As the years pass by, Phiona becomes extremely good at the sport, that she doesn’t even know how to spell it until she had already won a school level championship. She is blessed with immense talent, “you can think eight steps ahead?”, the coach himself is surprised with her talent.

As they say, success is an addiction. The more she won, the more progress she wanted to make. The more successful she becomes, the more knowledge she wanted to gain. She wants to just import all the knowledge from the book based on Kasprowicz’s moves, which is now her bible. The more knowledge she gains, the less she feels comfortable with the environment around her.

Every time she had to move ahead, someone had to make the sacrifices. In general, it is the coach and his family that does the sacrifices. He rejects his most important opportunity as an engineering supervisor which could wipe out their worries in one go- the wife says nothing, she smiles and acknowledges his decision. He does it, always with a smile.

The dream of young Phiona is to become a Master, not to achieve greatness, but to be able to afford a place to stay with the stipend that comes along with it.

“Queen of Katwe” despite being a regular rags-to-riches story, keeps itself completely isolated from all the clichés. William Wheeler, the screenwriter, deserves a special applause for keeping it realistic and dramatizing at the same time to the level that the emotion is carried away.

Madina Nalwanga, is absolutely brilliant as Phiona and it might not be exaggerating to say the real Phiona Mutesi might never be able to recreate the emotional journey as perfectly as Madina. It is only the topping. The cake goes to Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo. They steal the show. Every time they interact, which might be have been only four to five times, is an episode that’s worth rewatching. Just for those episodes. Just for those dialogues. Just for those expressions.

Overall, Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe” is a regular underdog story who beat the odds of poverty to chase the impossible. Whenever a hero emerges, it is not just the hero, the family contributes, the mentor contributes, the opportunities contribute and most importantly, the communities contribute. The movie sends a message to set up such communities which make it a possiblity for such heroes to emerge.

Release: 2016 | 

Runtime: 124 Mins |

Direction: Mira Nair |

Screenplay: William Wheeler |

Cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt |

Editor: Barry Alexander Brown |

Music: Alex Heffes |

Distribution: Walt Disney Studios |

Cast: Madina Nalwanga, David Oyelowo, Lupita Nyong’o


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